Long-time readers of this column -- and I mean those whose Sunday
morning boredom has driven them here for at least five years -- may
recall my commentary on the 9th International Conference on the Study
and Conservation of Earthen Architecture. That meeting was held in
Yazd, Iran and was an unqualified success thanks to the flawless
organizing by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, the
exceptionally high quality of the papers presented, and the peerless
hospitality of the Iranian people.
In my review of the Yazd proceedings, I commented with some urgency
that the next conference should be held in Africa. This was because
every country on that continent has a long tradition of earthen
building; some of them, like Morocco, Burkina Faso and Mali have
earthen monuments, and lots of them, that are simply over the top.
Think of the mosque in Djenne prickling with built-in scaffolding; the
amazingly decorated homes in Bobo Dioulasso; the massive, multi-story
earthen fortresses at the foot of the Atlas Mountains; and the fabled
sanctuaries of Timbucktu. Another reason is that even though
Africans have always been represented at these conferences, the
strictures of distance and money have severely limited their
participation. It was time, I thought, to take the conference to
I was certainly not the only one of that opinion and I am pleased to
report that the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles took up
the banner and planted it squarely in the center of one of the world's
greatest centers of earthen building; the West African country of Mali. In collaboration
with the Mali Ministry of Culture, the conference will host
three-hundred or so attendees who will have the opportunity to hear
some 125 papers presented on themes ranging from the conservation of
archeological sites to the issues of standards and guidelines for new
and existing structures. All very exciting if you are, as I am, a bit
loony about the beauty and practicality of building with mud.
The organizers of the 10th International Conference on the Study and
Conservation of Earthen Architecture invited me to present two papers.
The first will review some of our recent work and illustrate the
restoration of adobe and stone structures in New Mexico, Colorado,
Wyoming and North Dakota. One of the points I will emphasize is the
geographical diversity of adobe structures in the United States; it is
not commonly understood that we have such buildings in Wyoming (and
upstate New York, for that matter), or that German Ukrainian
immigrants built pitched earthen roofs in the northern Great Plains.
The point being that earthen architecture has a venerable history and
widespread application in even the most harrowing of climates.
My second paper, which is designed as the introduction to a problem in
order to advance discussion, deals with the taxonomy of earthen
architecture. Sound tedious? It is. But it has become obvious over
the years that we don't have a clear idea about all the methods and
techniques, nor of all the building typologies that have been evolved
through the use of earth. This lack of definition, believe it or not,
affects our ability to conserve earthen structures.
A taxonomy is a classification of related objects into an order that
allows us to facilitate the retrieval of information, distinguish
between varieties of similar things, and help explain the basis of
variation among typologically associated items.
Taxonomy, in other words, allows us to place objects in rational order
while simultaneously footnoting their distinguishing characteristics.
Good taxonomy is what enables naturalists to point at critical issues
and identify species that are endangered or disappearing.
In the case of earthen architecture, and of historic structures in
general, a good taxonomy would similarly help identify uniqueness,
patterns, best representatives, and so on -- all important not only
for establishing significance, but also to determine priorities in
treatments and protection.
The problem is especially acute on the World Heritage level. This is
the UNESCO convention that assigns special recognition to certain
sites, both cultural and natural as significant and important to all
mankind (in New Mexico we have three World Heritage Sites; Taos
Pueblo, Chaco Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns). In order to be able to
assess outstanding universal value we need to understand global and
cultural contexts, typologies and geographical spreads. One of the
big challenges in evaluating nominations to the World Heritage List
lies in our inability to say with unwavering certainty that a
nominated site is the only one of its kind, the best of its kind or
the most representative of its kind.
Just to give you a taste of the diversity, earthen sites range from
the defensive trenches of World War I to the circular, communal Hakka
houses in southeastern China to the Palace of the Governors in Santa
Fe to The Square and Compass (a lovely little pub in Purbeck,
A good taxonomy, in short, is very likely to accelerate the
inscription of earthen architectural sites on the World Heritage List
and that, in turn, offers clear advantages for their protection
because it validates their importance to funders in both the public
and private realms.